Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Here be dragons

I spent much of today with TV's Heritage Rescue team at Port Chalmers museum, where manacles from local slave ship the Rosalia - mistakenly named the Don Juan by museum staff - are proudly displayed next to a pair of egg cups. Artist Jasmine Togo-Brisby is an Australian South Sea Islander - that is, a descendant of Pacific people brought to Australia as slaves - and after we'd done our interviews at the museum she and I hunted the Rosalia along the shore of Otago harbour, where wrecks rise from the mud at every bend. 

It was a strange journey: my pleasure at finally meeting Jasmine, whose art I have long admired, was mingled with the memory of the instruments of restraint and torture at the museum. 

At Carey's Bay Jasmine and I found a wreck. Two rows of splayed, sharp-ended timbers poked out of the mud. The wreck was at once pathetic and fearsome, like the ribcage of a legendary dragon.

I'm flying back to New Zealand's humid zone tomorrow. Heritage Rescue are taking a Xmas break, then filming more episodes at more struggling museums in the New Year. They are a great team of scholars, renovators, and educators; I hope they can help the volunteers at Port Chalmers. 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A case of paranoia?

Last week one of New Zealand's wealthiest men told an audience of company directors that the copy of the Treaty of Waitangi on display at Te Papa is a fraud, and warned that white Kiwis are about to lose all their rights, as Maori create an apartheid state. The Spinoff asked me to write about the strange conspiracy theories that have taken over Sir William Gallagher's brain.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Looking for vampires

In New Zealand, vampires are a source of entertainment, but in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, they are the cause of real terror. At the Scoop Review of Books I've asked what's behind the reports of vampire murders in Vila, and wondered why a traditional, vampire-like character from the kastom of northern Vanuatu been adopted as an emblem by occultists and goths around the world. 

Monday, November 13, 2017

Garrett's latest target

Did you know that the indigenous peoples of the Pacific are prisoners of a violent and tribalist mindset, that all Tongans and Samoans hate each other, and that almost any Tongan is liable to go berserk after imbibing even a modest amount of alcohol?

I didn't either, until I'd read the opinion piece that David Garrett, ex-MP and convicted identity thief and bar room brawler, published last week at Kiwiblog, the site that seems to have become an antipodean version of Breitbart. Garrett had been upset by the rowdy celebrations of Tongans after one of their recent World Cup rugby league wins, and by post-match scraps between a few Friendly Islanders and Samoans.

The discussion thread under Garrett's piece is filled with fusty stereotypes and with jibes against Pacific Islanders in general, and Tongans in particular. I made a few comments there, in an effort to correct Garrett's erroneous claims about Tongan history, about his eccentric understanding of historical research, and about his failure to understand the causes of what I call modern Tongan exceptionalism.

Garrett also has some interesting views on Muslims, Indians, and gays.

I'm pleased that the man's various personality flaws and his addiction to booze got him booted from parliament before he had completed his first term.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

The late First Cat

Aneirin and I are sorry to hear about the demise of Jacinda Ardern's cat Paddles. Aneirin had been fascinated to learn last week about Paddles' recent rise to the position of First Cat. He was a little sceptical, though, about whether 'the really big cats, the ones in the zoo' would recognise Ardern's little tabby as their ruler. Now that Paddles has passed on, Aneirin is wondering whether there will be an election to decide on a new First Cat. He's pondered whether our grumpy black tortoiseshell Smudge could be a candidate in such a contest.
Aneirin followed the recent general election closely - he saw the various parties' billboards on his way to and from school, and also noticed ads in the media. He decided that he supported The Opportunities Party after seeing a photograph of Gareth Morgan and a few of his chums on a motorbike. But then Cerian, who knows how to influence young minds, informed Aneirin that Morgan wanted to wipe out New Zealand's cats. Aneirin was mortified. He turned his back on the 'Motorbike Party', and became an enthusiastic backer of the 'Red Team'. 
Indeed, when he came into the polling station with me on election day Aneirin raised the returning officers' eyebrows by shouting 'Come on Dad, vote for the Red Team!' He even followed me into the voting booth, in an effort to influence my choice. I have a feeling that we won't be voting on the next First Cat, and even if we were I wouldn't want Smudge exposed to the stresses of electoral politics.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Shuffling cards

There's been a lot of public interest in and debate about the New Zealand Wars lately, with a commemorative day being held for the first time, a series of public discussions involving Vincent O'Malley, the author of a massive and authoritative history of the Waikato War, and some interesting arguments about whether monuments raised after the wars should be demolished or amended. 

Image maker Paul Janman has been documenting many of these events, and has also been finding time to help me edit Ghost South Road, the war-haunted book of images and texts that will appear next year. Where O'Malley's book is a mighty narrative, Ghost South Road veers backwards and forwards through time, and features frequent character and costume changes. Paul and I recently exchanged e mails about the book's (lack of) structure. 

In his reply to my e mail Paul mentions a recent turbulent protest-meeting beside the Otahuhu memorial to Marmaduke Nixon, a man blamed by historians for human rights abuses during the invasion of the Waikato. I'll be posting Paul's account of that meeting soon. 

Hi Paul,

I have been following the New Zealand Wars commemorations and the debates over monuments to the wars. Although I support the work that Vincent O'Malley and other revisionist, anti-imperial historians and activists are doing, I think there is the danger of replacing one teleological timeline of events, events that must be rote learnt by schoolkids and journalists, with another. 

The people and events in Ghost South Road are generally there because they have excited me: because they have somehow enlarged my sense of what is possible in New Zealand. But perhaps this is a privilege I have, this feeling of astonishment. If I lived in a mouldy rented flat down the road from a farm that was confiscated from my great-great-grandfather after the Waikato War then I might have a different, less aesthetic, attitude to the past. 

Nevertheless, I am trying to ask the question: how can we encounter, communicate, the feelings of surprise and wonder that history can cause? How can we make people feel excited as well as saddened by the past? How can we reconcile the necessity of remembering the dark parts of history with the possibility that the past might also contain sources of nourishment, of reinvigoration?

There was a tradition, in Britain and in certain other European countries like Germany, of historians keeping loose cards, on which they wrote notes about discrete events, people, organisations. The cards could be shuffled, read in different orders. Beatrice Webb wrote about the 'games with reality' that she and her scholar-husband Sidney would play, as they sat with their boxes of cards by the fireplace in the evening. When the Webbs wrote their research up, though, the games were replaced by neat linear narratives.  

Nowadays historians file their notes on computers: I suppose they'd need a programme or an app to simulate the old card shuffling. Keith Thomas, author of Religion and the Decline of Magic, is famous as the last historian to keep loose notes. He says he files slips of paper in various envelopes, depending on their theme, and begins an essay or chapter when an envelope has begun to bulge and spill its contents onto the floor of his study. 
Perhaps what we need, as well as the linear counter-history that Vincent O'Malley and others are so ably providing, is a sort of card shuffling history: a history in which different events and people continually appear, and in which the marginal people - the pushers of wheelbarrows, the Lawrence Beavises - and the apparently minor events - the theft and wrecking of one of the first motorcars to reach Auckland by a group of servant-boys - can suddenly appear alongside more apparently significant personages and doings, and can, through their unexpected presence, perhaps suggest new perspectives, new possibilities. That all sounds terribly waffly, doesn't it? 

I don't have much sympathy for his long-winded theorising, but I do like Gilles Deleuze's  advocacy of nomadism: his advocacy of an instability of opinions as a way of life, his warning of the dangers of arriving at dogmatic views on this or that subject. Perhaps a sort of nomadism of history is required, so that we feel excited rather than oppressed by the past. But I'm still groping in the dark, as you can tell...

Thanks for these views Scott. I am myself working in this sort of way. Using an app called Scrivener, I am creating a range of index cards that I return to and rearrange. The talk at the Nixon monument was an outcome of this way of thinking and it was interesting to test it out on an audience - both good and bad results. I think it's worth remembering that shuffling type literary technologies are best I think, when they are driven by a tested kaupapa. 

Take the I Ching for example - it is free associative but its power also resides in the accretion of thousands of years of experimentation and scholarship that is distilled into 64 archetypes. So yes, the results can be exciting and enlivening for history but it can also turn off an audience that doesn't know where you're coming from, or perceives privilege in the inevitable genealogy of your ideas. 

And yes, I think there is a danger in privilege manifesting itself in aestheticism. This is why the privileged historical poet still needs the inclusion of a suppressed community to temper his excitement by exposing him to their own immediate interests. In O'Malley, you've seen how an individual commitment and effort has played off an audience and galvanised a movement. More to say but I've got to get back to my marking!


Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Is Jacinda a commie?

She's a pretty communist, said the placard a farmer brought to the pre-election demonstration in Morrinsville against Labour's plan for a tax on irrigators. After a photograph of the placard and its owner was run by the New Zealand Herald and other papers, social media teemed with discussions about the c word. On facebook and on twitter and on conservative blogs, many Kiwis insisted that Labour's new leader was, indeed, a communist. In the week since Ardern became Prime Minister, her allegiance to the communist creed has again been asserted.

In the comments boxes at Kiwiblog, New Zealand's most popular right-leaning blog, Ardern's communism is something like an article of faith. Commenter after commenter condemns Ardern as a dangerous extremist, but few offer any evidence for their political diagnosis.

In a recent post, Kiwiblog host David Farrar threw some red meat to the red-haters. Farrar quoted Ardern's claim that capitalism has been a 'blatant failure' at alleviating child poverty, and then noted that our new Prime Minister is a former head of the International Union of Socialist Youth. Given that history, what else could one expect from Ardern, Farrar asked, but resolute anti-capitalism?

Farrar went on to challenge Ardern to explain 'what socialism had ever done for poverty'.

Underneath Farrar's post, commenters accepted his insinuation that Ardern was a communist, and an admirer of societies like the Soviet Union and Mao's China. One commenter claimed that Ardern wanted to make New Zealand more like North Korea; another predicted she would build Stalinist gulags.
David Farrar’s grasp of the details of left-wing history and thought has often been uncertain. In a 2014 post to Kiwiblog he got the Communist Manifesto's publication date wrong by a quarter of a century, before going on claim that New Zealand's Labour Party had gotten most its policies from Marx and Engels' famous text. When he argues that Ardern is a revolutionary anti-capitalist because she once led the International Union of Socialist Youth, Farrar is either being mischievous or showing an ignorance of left-wing politics and traditions.  
The International Union of Socialist Youth represents youngsters from the organisations of the Second Socialist International. The Labour parties of Britain, Australia, New Zealand are included in the International, as well as Germany's Social Democratic Party, France's Socialist Party, South Africa's African National Congress, and scores of other outfits.

The member parties of the Second International share a social democratic politics. They don’t seek to abolish private property and the market and establish a planned economy, in the way that communists and other revolutionary anti-capitalists urge, but rather want to use the state to ameliorate what they see as the worst excesses of capitalism.
The Second International was founded in 1889, with the support of Engels. The Communist Manifesto had called on workers of the world to unite, and an international organisation was supposed to help its members to transcend national borders and parochialisms. Up until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the International's parties were sometimes vexed mixtures of revolutionaries and social democrats. When war came, the leaderships of the European parties that dominated the International lined up behind their nations' flags and armies.

Vladimir Lenin, one of the most vociferous members of the International's revolutionary wing, was living in exile in Zurich in 1914. When he read in a newspaper that the German Social Democratic Party's representatives in the Reichstag had joined conservatives and voted in support of the Kaiser and war, Lenin at first believed that the paper was a forgery. When he realised that the leaders of the SDP and its sister really had sided with their bourgeoisies and declared war, Lenin denounced the Second International. After they had seized power in Russia in 1917, Lenin and his Bolsheviks founded a Third, revolutionary International, with its headquarters in Moscow.

After World War One the Second International slowly regrouped, and by the 1920s the Second and Third Internationals were competing for influence inside the trade union movements of the world.

In his book-length polemic Left-wing Communism Lenin addressed his followers in nations like Britain and New Zealand, where Labour parties linked to the Second International were far larger and more influential than revolutionary organisations. Revolutionaries should support the social democratic parties in the way 'a rope supports a hanged man', Lenin said. They should cooperate with social democrats inside the workers' movement, but at the same time criticise their rivals and seek to replace them in the hearts of the workers.
The Communist Party of New Zealand never had more than a couple of thousand members, but it made several attempts to affiliate with the Labour Party, in an attempt to put Lenin's advice into practice. The party was always rebuffed by Labour. 
David Farrar invited Jacinda Ardern to explain what her brand of socialism has done for poverty. I’d expect that, as a former leader of the youth wing of the Second International, she’d be inclined to talk about the likes of Michael Joseph Savage’s 1930s NZ government, Norm Kirk’s government in the ’70s, and Clem Attlee’s government in postwar Britain, and initiatives like the welfare state and the National Health Service. She certainly wouldn’t be obliged to talk about the Soviet Union or China.
There’s a sense in which some of the ideas of the Second International have been assimilated even by conservatives in the West. David Farrar's National Party supports many of the anti-poverty innovations of Second International parties, like a public health system and welfare payments for the unemployed.
There have been senior Labour politicians who were in their youth members of revolutionary parties – Marion Hobbs, who was a member of the Communist Party of New Zealand before she became a Quaker and a member of Helen Clark's cabinet, is one who comes to mind – but I haven’t seen any evidence that Ardern has ever been anything more than a social democrat. Not many revolutionaries have worked in the office of Tony Blair
We can get a sense of the distance of Jacinda Ardern's government from the revolutionary left by looking at the cool welcome that New Zealand's handful of revolutionary outfits have given it. The group that publishes a blog named Redline responded to Ardern's Prime Ministership with a piece called 'Tories out, Xenophobes in?' Redline denounced the new government's plans to cut immigration, and accused Labour as well as New Zealand First of 'anti-Asian racism'. Ardern's government will be, Redline predicts, the most xenophobic New Zealand has seen since the 1970s, when Rob Muldoon sent squads of cops on dawn raids against Pacific Island homes.

In an article published before Winston Peters gave New Zealand a Labour government, the Dunedin-based International Socialist Organisation was also critical of Ardern. The ISO blamed Labour's relatively poor electoral performance in a number of working class Auckland on the 'anti-migrant rhetoric' from Ardern and her comrades. For Redline and the ISO, the struggle between nationalism and internationalism that sundered the Second International in 1914 continues. Like the German Social Democrats in 1914, the New Zealand Labour Party of 2017 is guilty, they believe, of appeasing chthonic prejudices and kowtowing to its local bourgeoisie, instead of standing for internationalism and against capitalism.

When they call Jacinda Ardern a commie, David Farrar and others on the right are trying to elide two very different political traditions.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]